Government to bring back material from moon
China launched an ambitious mission on Tuesday to bring back rocks and debris from the moon’s surface for the first time in more than 40 years – an undertaking that could boost human understanding of the moon and of the solar system more generally.
Chang’e 5 – named for the Chinese moon goddess – is the country’s boldest lunar mission yet. If successful, it would be a major advance for China’s space programme, and some experts say it could pave the way for bringing samples back from Mars or even a crewed lunar mission.
The four modules of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft blasted off at just after 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday atop a massive Long March-5Y rocket from the Wenchang launch centre along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan.
The typically secretive administration had previously only confirmed the launch would be in late November. Spacecraft typically take three days to reach the moon.
The mission’s key task is to drill two meters (almost seven feet) beneath the moon’s surface and scoop up about two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks and other debris to be brought back to Earth, according to NASA. That would offer the first opportunity for scientists to study newly obtained lunar material since the American and Russian missions of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Chang’e 5 lander’s time on the moon is scheduled to be short and sweet. It can only stay one lunar daytime, or about 14 Earth days, because it lacks the radioisotope heating units to withstand the moon’s freezing nights.
The lander will dig for materials with its drill and robotic arm and transfer them to what’s called an ascender, which will lift off from the moon and dock with the service capsule. The materials will then be moved to the return capsule to be hauled back to Earth.
The technical complexity of Chang’e 5, with its four components, makes it “remarkable in many ways,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the US Naval War College.
“China is showing itself capable of developing and successfully carrying out sustained high-tech programmes, important for regional influence and potentially global partnerships,” she said.
In particular, the ability to collect samples from space is growing in value, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Other countries planning to retrieve material from asteroids or even Mars may look to China’s experience, he said.